What is it about?

John Grierson’s classic definition of documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality” emphasizes both the genre’s indexical link to reality and the maker’s perspective on this reality. In recent times, a substantial number of so-called “interactive” documentaries has seen the light of day. In this paper, one dimension of such online documentaries, namely the freedom of users to access content via different paths of navigation as well as to skip material, is discussed from the perspective that a documentary, in a necessarily subjective way, attempts to convince the viewer of something. Interactivity limits the maker’s opportunities to do so. Five interactive documentaries are discussed: Gaza/Sderot; Out of my Window; Waterlife; Hidden like Anne Frank; bear71.

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Why is it important?

If we understand a documentary to be a kind of audiovisual speech, as Bill Nichols (2017) suggests, then the documentary makers must use all resources at their disposal to persuade their audience of their views on whatever it is the documentary is about. These resources crucially comprise the order in which shots and scenes are accessed by the viewer. In a conventional, linear documentary, watched on TV or in the cinema, the viewer has no choice here. In interactive documentaries, by contrast, viewers can access all or many parts of the documentary in an order they choose, and they can also skip parts. This enormously restricts the degree to which documentary makers can persuade viewers of the correctness or viability of their views. If "trying to persuade" is a defining criterion of what should count as a documentary, it is doubtful whether interactive documentaries are not self-contradictory phenomena. Rather they are databases, much like specialist libraries, that provide information but not, or barely, a perspective on information.


While databases can be tremendously useful, I am worried that accepting "interactive documentary" as a (sub)type of documentary, this erodes the essence of "documentary-ness." This is potentially dangerous -- a flourishing documentary film culture is one of the safeguards of democratic societies, and the label "documentary film" should therefore not be watered down. Linear documentaries are sometimes criticized for "imposing" a perspective, whereas Interactive documentaries supposedly give viewers the freedom to form their own ideas. I would say: documentaries are only interesting precisely if and because they provide a perspective. It is up to the viewer to agree or disagree with that perspective -- but after s/he has accessed the whole documentary in the form decided on by the maker.

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Interactive documentary and its limited opportunities to persuade, Discourse Context & Media, December 2017, Elsevier,
DOI: 10.1016/j.dcm.2017.06.004.
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